Counseling Theories

What did I learned in my last Counseling class before my field experience?  I thought I knew something about Counseling Theorists, but then Dr. D had this way of showing you the theories in such a way that they really stick.

The class structure was a great format to dissect and dig into theories.  The process of presentation followed by professor overview, then movement into a live role play, and finally into an activity created an environment of learning that leaves room for participation, learning and feedback.  I got the most from the role plays, as these helped me see how different theories can impact individuals and problems.  These experiences have helped me choose the theories that I believe in and trust will work for my style and my view of human nature and development.  I have learned that theory is the second most important part of working with clients.

 The first night of class my professor discussed four fundamental questions that theory addresses. ” 1) What do you believe about people? 2) Why do people do what they do or what drives them? 3) How do people get into trouble? and 4) How do we help them?”  These questions have been a simplistic, yet helpful way to view theory.  Understanding and subscribing to a specific counseling theory is fundamental to effective counseling.  The most important part of theory I have learned is that without a strong understanding of how to use a counseling theory that I believe in, I get lost.  There have been times with clients when I wanted to use a new technique, but it was unsuccessful because I did not fully understand and appreciate the application of the technique’s use.  As I became more comfortable with specific theories and how looking at human nature from each individual theoretical lens, it became easier to use the strategy or technique.

From Psychoanalytical, I have learned that Freud’s coping mechanisms were one of the most influential items that we still use today in counseling theory and practice.  In our everyday lives we can see how the use of adaptive and maladaptive coping mechanisms assists us and our clients.  Even though I do not agree with all of Freud’s psychosexual stages or his view of human nature, that people are basically bad, the work he started led to incredible research and data in the field.  There are truths to specific problematic behaviors that Freud identified from children who do not successfully pass through specific stages off development.

From Adler, I have learned that he was incredibly diverse and his theory is helpful to apply in many situations, as many theories branched out from Adler’s work.  Specifically helpful in Adler’s work are the focus on people striving to be part of the social whole, his psychoeducational work that has been adapted to many educational programs for children, his work on family roles and functions as well as how feelings of inferiority get us into trouble.  These theories are especially impactful for me since my focus is in Marriage and Family Therapy.  From Rogers, we learn just how important the therapeutic alliance is and how significant unconditional positive regard, congruence, genuineness, and empathy are for building a relationship that will help our clients.  Rogers’ was an incredible counselor and teacher who made the psychology world realize the power and difficulty in “really being with” a client.  The art and skill of being transparent, really caring about an individual and conveying to the client that you get them, that you really get it; is so powerful!

A sound knowledge of theory helps me to be more effective as a counselor because it “provides a framework for gathering and organizing information, it provides a theory of development, it provides steps and strategies that encourage growth and change and provides direction and a way to evaluate progress (Dudell 2010).”  When I am approaching a new client, I use an Adlerian and Rogerian perspective.  This entails establishing the therapeutic relationship and establishing goals in a collaborative manner.  Then I will use assessment and analysis to understand the person and the problem.  I want to know how their childhood has impacted them.  I like to ask the client, “what is your earliest memory?”  At my practicum site, this question is included in the assessment phase, along with other questions pertaining to lifestyle, family and social roles as well as goals for the future.  In my experience, you can learn a lot about a client by hearing this story and asking them what meaning this memory has for them.

Existentialism is a theory that can be tough to work with, but the philosophical framework I find incredibly helpful.  Many people we come into contact with seem to be running around in this rat race, looking for something, but at the end of the day they find they are connected to nothing, they care about nothing.  The life they are looking for is the emptiness that the media portrays as “happiness.”  The work one can do from an existential perspective is huge, it helps people find meaning and purpose in a world in which they lack connection.  The journey in this theory is understanding that helping someone find meaning is not about you, it is an absolute collaboration, but the power here is in freedom.  The choice to choose is one that not all people have the pleasure and privilege of experiencing during childhood.  Utilizing this theory with some may bring them into a new way of understanding how they fit in the world.  I have a client who I recommended read Man’s Search For Meaning, by Frankl.  She constantly feels like she is powerless in the world around her.  After reading the book, she came in with a different attitude, more hopeful, more energetic, and thankful.

Gestalt theory has taught me the significance of being in the present, in the “here and now” as Perls stresses.  The here and now not only affects our clients, but it impacts us as well.  This theory is a reminder of how to focus and remember that we must be whole in order to be fully present for our clients.  As counselors, we are role models.   If we get lost in our own head while they are sharing, how can we expect them to make any changes to integrate their parts?

One of the theories I gravitate to the most is Narrative therapy.  This theory speaks to me because of my love of stories, hearing stories, telling stories, and understanding meaning that comes from stories.  The clarification Dr. D gave to this theory of, “it’s not the experience itself, it’s what we say to ourselves about the experience (Dudell 2010)” that helped it make sense for me.  This theory can be used and applied to many different situations and clients.  It has a cognitive and emotion-based component to it; it is useful for a wide range of clients such as children, families, couples and individual clients.  The most impactful part if this technique is when the client decides to rewrite or “reauthor” their story.  I used a technique with a young lady who had been raped by a neighbor at five years of age.  Using guided imagery and narrative therapy, she was able to go back and change one thing without changing the outcome.  By doing this one simple task, her weekly nightmares went away.  What a powerful experience!  Even three months after our session, she had not experienced a nightmare and was able to have an intimate dream about her boyfriend that very night she re-authored her event.

Cognitive based theories are an effective and methodical way to assist clients to become aware of their thoughts and how those thoughts impact their feelings and actions.  From class, Dr. D made it clear not to rely solely on these interventions because they can be easy, and helpful, and may keep us from cross-training our counselor muscles.  I have to agree with the statements presented in class that punctuate the necessity of helping people gain insight while also teaching them new skills to change their problematic behaviors.  If all the work I do with a client focuses on changing their thinking, but does not help them foster an understanding as to how they got where they are, how will the client know that the problematic behavior won’t come back?

The frustrating part of the counseling process may be when working in a non-residential agency, private practice, or working with insurance companies that require quick and speedy work and treatment plans in the first session.  Perhaps with many years under my belt I will be able to quickly assess the main problem, but what I have learned thus far about theory has taught me that I need to know a little more than thirty minutes worth of a client to provide an effective treatment plan.  Using theories such as solution-focused, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) or other forms of transpersonal therapies is a great way to help people move along quickly and make progress while helping them integrate new habits and behaviors that they can use for further education and development long after they have worked with me.   I have also learned that theory can be difficult when you want to use them all, however being too inconsistent in treatment confuses the client, slows progress and may cause harm.

That semester I realized that counseling and helping people is my passion and that I am good at it.  The coolest part of my educational experience was taking my Practicum II  course while taking Counseling Theories.  It opened up my ability to take risks.  I have always seen myself as pretty innovative in business, but when it comes to working with people, I was hesitant.  That semester gave me more confidence in my skills.  With the extra confidence, I was not as hesitant to try new techniques, to push the limit respectfully and to try my best to help clients see the things I see in them.

Midway through the semester I was feeling bummed out.  During supervision one day, I expressed my concerns with my supervisor and she called me out in a very effective way.  I know that I have high expectations, for others and myself.  This has gotten me into trouble in the past.  She helped me see that just because the client’s progress is not on my timeline, does not mean that it is not progress.  Each individual has their own timeline, and I can nudge and support, encourage and push, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the client.  Well, of course I know this, but I am glad that I had this experience and reminder.  I will keep this moment close as I go through the years.  When I feel down or disappointed that my clients are not moving forward as I had hoped, I will stop, step back and take a moment.  Be present with the client.  Through this pause I regain perspective and remind myself, “it’s not about you Missy!”  I have also learned that my program has made me a better person.  I care about myself more, I grew up, I learned what I want in life and I have outlined a Plan A, B, and C on how to get there!


  1. davidmillerlmft · November 3, 2012

    Interesting post. Surprised you left CBT towards the end. In the work I do I have found CBT and Narrative both very useful, though I think we all pull a little from each theory, whatever works to help the client. Thanks for stopping by and likeing one of my posts.


    • missycooper1 · November 3, 2012

      Thanks! Yes, I agree on both accounts. You are welcome! You have good stuff there!


  2. Stephen Kleine · October 28, 2020

    As a professional counseling student, this article has been immensely helpful! Thank you, Missy, for taking the time to make the complexity of the different theories easily understood. I am having a challenging time finding my theory of choice and this post makes a lot of sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • missycooper1 · November 1, 2020

      Stephan, so happy you found this post helpful. For me, finding a theory was something that I felt in my spirit. You can def use tactics from several theories but the theory for you is one that resonates, feels comfortable and you have confidence will help you help others. Best wishes in finding the one that speaks to you!


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